Thursday, June 21, 2012

When Animals Evolve


Canada, now proud home to the Insect Revolution!

Jack Kirby's Kamandi Omnibus Volume 1: written and illustrated by Jack Kirby, Mike Royer, and D. Bruce Berry (1972-74; collected 2011): In 1972, DC Comics' then-Editor-in-Chief Carmine Infantino gave up on getting the rights to do a Planet of the Apes comic book and turned to writer-artist Jack Kirby to create something similar. Kirby had never seen Planet of the Apes and wasn't initially supposed to do anything other than create the book. But with the demise of most of Kirby's Fourth World books for DC, Kirby got tagged to write and illustrate his Apes knock-off, which he called Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth.

 
Kamandi quickly became Kirby's most popular book for DC in the 1970's, one that would only get cancelled six years after its debut because of the infamous line-wide DC Implosion. But by that time, others were writing and drawing it -- Kirby returned to Marvel in 1976 for four years.
 

A double-paged splash in the first issue suggests that Kirby had been told about an iconic scene in the first Planet of the Apes movie -- the splash features the Statue of Liberty half-sunk underwater. And we soon meet talking apes. But Kirby quickly moved into a wilder, woolier universe than anything Charlton Heston ever encountered. This was the future after a nebulous Great Disaster redrew the maps and rewrote genetics. This was the world of Kamandi!
 

Kamandi, a scrappy blond teenager, gets forced out of the bunker he's been living in his entire life, a bunker called Command D (get it?), when the bunker is overrun by raiders and Kamandi's grandfather killed. No other humans survive in the bunker.
 

But the raiders are intelligent, bipedal wolves. In the world after disaster, a wide variety of animals are now intelligent and bipedal, while others (killer whales, snakes) are intelligent but not bipedal. Some will turn out to be Kamandi's allies and friends -- the Lions are civilized environmentalists; a giant grasshopper becomes a valued companion; and Tiger Prince Tuftan becomes one of Kamandi's few animal friends, along with helpful Doctor Canis. Some will be pains in the neck -- the thieving wolves and rats, the pirate leopards...
 

Conversely, much of humanity has reverted to a pre-civilized state and, furthermore, has become something of an endangered species in most parts of the world. Some humans are enslaved, some kept as pets and guards, others put in zoos. A few radically altered humans persist as tiny but courageous Mole People (!) who keep ancient machines running simply because the noise drives off a giant, voracious earthworm (!!).
 

Kirby shuffles and reshuffles the thematic and conceptual deck repeatedly. The book moves rapidly from story to story, from animal kingdom to animal kingdom, and from one devastated but familiar locale to another. Kirby soon indulges his ability to synthesize myth and popular culture into odd and rewarding combinations. I mean, pirate leopards working for a greedy but cultured talking snake who runs a piracy operations called Sacks? A 100-foot-tall talking ape dubbed Tiny who is caged by Hoover Dam? It's weird stuff. Improbable and enjoyable.

 

My favourite creations here (other than the Eater, that radiation-charged, Moleman-hating, gigantic earthworm) are the Fission people -- genetically altered humans whom Kamandi teams up with on several occasions -- and their floating, super-scientific city Tracking Site. Therein dwells Morticoccus, a giant germ that eats everything and anything biological or metallic, indestructible but caged forever. Or is it? Whee!
 

DC would severely misuse Kamandi's world during its Countdown to Final Crisis/Final Crisis event a few years back. One measure of that failure would be that they made Morticoccus a normal-sized super-germ, which is way less awesome and creepy than a germ that can engulf an entire city and which is apparently highly intelligent AND EVEN APPEARS TO HAVE EYES. But DC has also finally made Kirby's entire run on Kamandi available in the Omnibus format, so kudos for that. It's Kirby's last lengthy run on a title, and one of the most enjoyable from his entire career. Also, it would make an awesome movie. Highly recommended.

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